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HIGHER EDUCATION AND THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATIC IDEAL?

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By Aaron James Henry

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The Montréal Review, December 2021

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It is a collective belief these days that the university is in a state of crisis. The diagnosis of this crisis offered by pundits, economists, and by university administrators are not the interest of this essay; however, to state the case briefly, it is believed that degrees are out of sync with workplace expectations and, despite having never been more expensive, are of less value to employers.1 The solution, nearly hatched from the cocoon of future tense, presented by university presidents is the intensification of the degree output through faster degree programs and more mass online courses.

The focus of this essay though, is the counter-arguments practitioners of the social sciences have used to defend against the claims that social sciences and humanities degrees ought to be phased out.2 Liberal arts technicians (I do not use the title ‘professor’ as fewer and fewer of us are blessed with such an office) are wagering the social sciences and the humanities on the principle that they provide students with the intellectual and vocational skills to advance public life and democratic culture.3

Yet despite ever greater degree output, democracy seems to be dire straits. Democratic participation continues to decline and not merely in the nominal measure of the number of people that patron (and are patronized by) the ballot box. Comments on the decline of public discourse and public engagement are too many to count. In fact, we may look no further to the 2016 American election and its terminal conclusion in a failed coup to see how quickly this argument falters. Trump’s presidency, marked by racism, violence, and misogyny and blatant disregard for the democratic process, was taken nearly at face value to be built on the support of white, poor, uneducated Americans; the revenge of a rebellious, directionless American working class that had been hollowed out by globalization. Pundits will carry the shock that white college educated men supported Trump in greater numbers than Clinton until they are put to pasture!4 

The profile of Trump’s support should force us to do some reckoning and confront a bizarre disconnect and contradiction that deeply troubles  the argument that education is linked to a grand democratic ideal: there have never been so many individuals educated in the liberal arts and social sciences (here on termed the liberal arts) and yet democracy is so thoroughly troubled and looks on the brink of being trumped by cults of personality. And so, words and reality appear to have parted company. How are we to make sense of their divorce?

There are a few ways to  interrogate what appears to be a breakdown in the connection of liberal democracy to the output of liberal arts degrees. For instance, it could be the case that  a liberal arts education does in fact prepare individuals to contribute to democratic culture,  but that the structure of society has changed such that democracy and its accompanying sentiments are in terminal decline, which has  effectively left  social scientists without a theatre in which to perform. It is also possible that the liberal arts do not fulfill the functions we have ascribed to them. Finally, it may be the case that a liberal arts education has no intrinsic connection to liberal democratic life and the potentialities of agency and engagement in liberal democratic life have been thoroughly exaggerated; and, consequently, too high a task has been laid on the cluttered desk of the academic. Unpacking these issues requires a sober clarification of the state of democratic life compared to the rhetoric of the social scientist. This clarification can be achieved, in part at least, first by a painless overview of what completing a degree entails; the real powers graduates accrue to improve the democratic ethos; and by asking what democracy entails and whether the university is in any real position to exert control over it.

The claim that a liberal arts education is especially good for democracy and sustains democratic culture is not neutral. It implies a liberal arts education offers skills not learned in the natural sciences, or even in business and economic degrees. Though the differences amongst political science, sociology, English and history, are huge for their practitioners, training for each degree is similar: attend lecturers, take notes, participate in tutorial groups and write papers graded for clarity, argument, originality and proper structure.

It is said that these activities improve critical reasoning skills. And without too much balking, it seems defensible that the critical reasoning skills gained by the graduate from the liberal arts  differ from the reasoning skills gained by the chemist or the biologist or the engineer in one distinct way. What differentiates the liberal arts from all other degrees is that the liberal arts emphasize, or at least should emphasize, the importance of history.

The progeny of historical inquiry is a form of reason that knows social life has been structured differently in the past and can, therefore, be structured otherwise in the future. The ways we behave towards one another is not an immutable facet of human nature. This means rather than looking to biological and psychological explanations of social action or economic life, we should consider social relations and institutional structures that condition the forms of human life that take root in any given epoch. If we accept this premise, which seems worthy of entertaining, it follows that this outlook would be helpful in pushing for social change. Indeed, if nothing is immutable or given about society, change is possible. More than this, things can be changed to expand substantive freedoms and support human life and dignity. 

It should be clear that this outlook empowers individuals to believe public offices should limit inequality and pursue more just social and economic arrangements. What remains less clear though, is if this outlook can develop into a public discourse that will command political office to these desired ends. This line is difficult to substantiate without falling into the trap of assuming that all activities which resemble reasoned discussion become public discourse. For the moment though,  let us presumethat it is true that higher education inculcates a group of people into a style of thought, and a mode of articulation that positively affects public life, and by the law of all good tides, raises even the lowest of public offices. The next question that follows is what organs of communication and channels of dissemination have accrued to these young women and men to allow them to exert their influence successfully?

Those who receive liberal arts degrees obtain no extra vote and so are not granted any direct tangible means to sway the course of public office. They also are not equipped with lines into public offices that are any more direct or any more powerful than those of any other citizen. Indeed, if anything, because the internet has leveled the field of communication by empowering anyone to blog, tweet, and post, the voices of  liberal arts scholars are even less distinct today than in an age when knowledge remained centralized in learned journals. The leveling of communication by the internet makes it difficult to maintain that social media technologies have yielded over-representation to the opinions of the progressive scholar working in  service of  democracy. Consequently, it is difficult to advance the idea that these publicly minded individuals exert a larger presence over public life than any other member of the public.

Moreover, both these failed cases assume that higher education in the social sciences and humanities stirs a desire in its graduates to engage in public life. However, if a liberal arts education trains the individual to be critical and examine the outer world to uncover the disconnect between the world’s appearance and reality (and it should be added that no philosophical injunction has produced a stronger analytical standpoint), this view does not necessarily produce the desire to participate in public discourse. On the contrary, the liberal arts student, especially those successfully inculcated, will find the common-sense worldview they encounter day-to-day largely unattractive. They find themselves in the odious position of being thoroughly unimpressed with what passes as public discourse, but nonetheless compelled to retain their fidelity to the notion of the “common good.”

If this schizophrenic position wasn’t an arduous enough gift, we have also demanded they ensure that the former aligns itself with perpetuation of the latter. The essential condition of their education, fidelity to the standpoint of “ought” bars them from drawing comfort from the common cultural life of their society. When most individuals are deprived of any acquaintance to the standpoint of “ought,” they forge a conception of the common good in the world as they grasp it. This concept hews the dominant values and morals of civilization as the parameters of public life. Immediately the limits of a liberal arts education become apparent: disposed to lead public discourse but not dutifully participate within and reproduce it, the graduate leaves the university as a captain without a ship.

In fact, by virtue of their training, the critical scholar cannot be affable with what is taken to be values of their democracy. They are trained to deconstruct the values, ideas, and practices put forward by authorities; their role is one of an iconoclast. Imbued with the critiques, suspicions, and prejudices that were in vogue during their season of education, the student leaves the university aloof to the ideas and values that others cling to and use to find their “place” in the social order.

Trained to be publicly minded but rightly suspicious of those whom align themselves with the opinions that form the yardstick of public life, the liberal arts student has no choice but to lapse on their training or take hold of public discourse to make it more reflective of their position. Only the act of making public discourse more reflective of their position sustains the belief that a liberal arts degree is the foundation of democratic practice. Yet, there are too few command posts and fewer public offices that will admit these scholars on a scale that serves to endorse the degree process as an agent in democratic practice. Such is not a failure of democracy, but its  condition of its operation. In fact, all our attempts to purportedly extend liberal democracy are increasingly palliatives to ensure its limited conditions of operation appear less ghastly than they truly are.

Public discourse and democratic action are now perceived as all forms of activity that engage with a social circle larger than the immediate interior of private life. Social media technologies have been instrumental in this transformation. The status update, the tweet, and the blog all betray the appearance of some form of public engagement. However, public discourse is not achieved by its appearance “in public,” but because it belongs to lines of communication that shape the rule of public office; public discourse has always been a curiously limited and private affair.

Under this criterion, for better or worse, the corporate lobbyist whose professional life is a game of influencing public policy and regulations, stands firmly within the remit of public discourse, while the journalist, or academic who catalogues our society’s social ills, advances a parallel discourse that may only haphazardly cast its shadows on public offices where democratic rule takes place.

The idea that virtual platforms have extended the range of democratic discussions is patently absurd. Thousands of chattering rooms housed three blocks away from the offices of state have access into the workings of democracy only insofar as there is a small chance they may occasionally be “overheard” when those in power happen to pass by. So, the argument that there is something intrinsic to a liberal arts education that improves democratic life cannot be sustained on the grounds that the education process employs more people in the working of democracy. Perhaps, examining democracy may take some of the shortcomings away from liberal arts degrees, and, merificully, place it on  the structural limits of liberal democratic life itself.

It must be recalled that democracy  is not rule by the people but rule of the people. Consequently democracy’s leveling function and transformative character in social life has not been the radical extension of questions of rule to all sectors of society; the radical project of liberal democracy was the declaration in de jure5, that all sectors of society are eligible to compete for the offices that execute rule. This is all that truly separates our political system from all other epochs.

 Some may point to habeas corpus, the right to free speech, the freedom of movement, or the more frequently exercised freedom to own a mortgage and, after series of layoffs, take up a third profession. Yet, none of these things need be exclusive to democratic rule. After-all, habeas corpus was demanded and realized in the feudal period! What makes them peculiar to liberal democracy is that everyone is entitled to these rights in law. Structurally, there is no reason why these rights could not appear in regimes that maintained a strict edict that only a select class of person were qualified to govern; or, as seems to be the case today, for a liberal democratic regime to maintain these rights as it slides into a plutocracy. In fact, it could even be argued, counter intuitively, that democratic society routinely threatens its own basis of rule as well. This tendency is expressed under two headings.

First, as inequality continues to yawn open into a chasm wide gap, a trend that may only intensify as AI driven automation takes hold, there will be greater claims for equality in both social and economic forms. However, in liberal democracy if equality replaces equity  the political system is put at risk. Liberal democracy cannot serve equality insofar as full equality would entail that “rule of the people” would have to become “rule by the people,” and if this happens then liberal democracy, by definition, ceases to exist. Its replacement, would have to find a way to transform all political offices into universal offices so that “all” shaped the question of how to rule; or seek to simplify rule  so that all could equally participate within it without all of social life being devoted to the task. The closest one could get to this latter state would be daily referendums on economic, political, social and moral matters, and to meet the requirement of equal rule the very act of establishing the referendum might have to be a collective affair, an arrangement that looks tortuous to a society that prizes itself on its “efficiency.”

Second, liberal democratic regimes come under peril more routinely by trying to counter the tendency exhibited above with too much force. Liberal rights conceive of the freedoms they enshrine as existing naturally outside the collective social process of public life. Offer individuals purported equity under the law, the right to own a little box, go to work without being unduly harassed on the basis of their gender, sex, race, religion etc. raise children with nominal autonomy and deliberate fully on a series of market exchanges and you effectively insulate the individual from the political system to such an extent they feel they need not pay it attention.6 In fact, despite the fact that their capacity to exercise these individual rights is perpetually altered by minute technical adjustments made out of various public offices, government appears increasingly irrelevant or, at least well beyond the reach, of the average person’s daily life. Modern populism is an outgrowth of this phenomenon. The ostensible irrelevance and ineptitude of government both makes it a soft target of self-proclaimed “swamp drainers,” and ensures that when these forces take power they will wield government’s machinery before a public that is at best incredulous and, at worse, aloof to the dangerous ends this machinery can be made to serve.

Consequently, today we scarcely look up or, depending on one’s attitude, down to government when it wages lowkey war or determines the fate of our children by locking into a trade agreement with another nation; and this assumes such agreements even capture our attention to begin with! By enshrining individual liberal rights that are legible solely in the degree of autonomy they guarantee individuals from the state, the very rights taken to be hallmarks of democracy are in constant danger of undermining the legitimacy of liberal democratic regimes.  The democratic system has become threatened not by its failure to distribute political offices, but because citizens barely make quorum at the polls to ratify the legitimacy of these offices.7

The vast majority of the public sees no reason to be bothered with democratic participation precisely because the rights guaranteed to them in the name of democratic society insulate them from government to such an extent they feel comfortable to take no notice of it; and, those aspects hey do take notice of, such as dysfunctional economic systems,, are presented by the system as immutable and beyond the reach of the ballot box. Yet, it is arguable that if this relationship were disrupted, and society went from barely making quorum to giving each citizen full deliberation in any public office they saw fit to join, the system would crash under the demands. In fact, this in large measure explains the establishment’s fear of populism: populism is feared not because it arouses racism, hatred, misogyny, but because it threatens to make sacrosanct tenets of the status quo up for grabs.

The expansion of liberal private market freedoms sustains a relatively atrophied sphere of public deliberation. Democracy functions precisely because public office is not extensive and inclusive of the whole population and, as a consequence, neither the state of being included nor excluded from these offices  fulfills any democratic ethos, as we have come to understand said ethos. Therefore, if we disqualify other political systems because liberal rights would threaten the integrity of these regimes, we are forced to add liberal democracy to this collection. So, for these reasons it could be said that liberal rights are not much more compatible to democracy than they are to other  political regimes, which leaves the sin qua non condition of democratic rule outside the legal, economic, and social determinations of the individual’s access to liberal rights.

Consequently, those who claim that liberal arts educations are important because they equip individuals to contribute to society’s democratic culture are right for reasons they’d likely find odious. Our graduates go out and confront a system of liberal democracy that is sustained  by empowering individuals to take on private lives so that public offices can remain outside the lines of deliberation possessed by most of the population.

Trapped with the rest of the public in this relationship to democracy, it seems hard for liberal arts students to confront these relations with notable success. As such, we should not wave away concerns about the utility of social sciences and the humanities with vague promises of ‘contributing to the health of democracy’. Indeed, despite the prevalent belief that the university forms an essential organ in the functioning of democratic society, the current state of affairs suggests if there is a relationship at all, the question might be one of how liberal democracy conditions all of society’s educative functions, and not the other way around.

Approaching the relationship between liberal democracy and education from this side, may force us to ask what can be said today about the university apparatus and our role within it? Such a question must be pondered if we are committed to making a reasonable and honest defense of the degrees we collectively build. Charitably, we might say our mandate is to give as many people as possible the same education. To produce a population with a common educational background not dissimilar to the expansion of public education in the latter half of the nineteenth century. But is higher education a process which can be made common?

Some might be inclined to say no, but objectively there is no reason why this might not be possible. If universities are well funded and devote these funds to the task of education this should be quite achievable. With enough full-time professors one could have small close-knit classrooms with less than a dozen people in tutorials and substantive one on one time with professors. Under these conditions there is no reason why the education delivered in an average university should fall below the elite specializations offered at Harvard, Cambridge, and Oxford etc. But this would be an expensive undertaking and frankly a hard course of action to take in an environment that is shaped by successive cuts from both provincial and federal governments. So, in the absence of a massive injection of capital, can such an objective be achieved? It should go without saying that this cannot be the case.

Without more resources a university education cannot be extended on mass without being thoroughly transformed. Without full time professors who are able to  instruct a number of small students and get  to know them intimately the university ceases to offer anything that resembles ‘higher education.’ Rather the key problem with the university in its current state is that a system premised on mass administration must operate on a principle of equity rather than merit. As Max Weber noted, bureaucratic administration is its own process of leveling that seeks to crush all social and economic distinctions until we are reduced to the same type of individual8, a compression that means people of different ages, sexes, genders, races, and social and economic backgrounds can be reduced to mere number. In practice, such a process remains uneven and rarely able to overcome relations of sexism and racism which often remain dominate even as bureaucratic administration matures in social life.

Though uneven and partial, there are some positive elements in bureaucratic social leveling, but when it comes to higher education social levelling is profoundly unsustainable. Systems that operate on a principle of equity will inevitably produce inequality, misery, and marginalization. That we are often forced to eschew the ethic of equity in everyday life is obvious enough; we know it is moral to give up the front seat on the bus for the very old, disabled, and pregnant, to do so means that seating on the bus must be premised on a system of equality not that of equity; to adhere to the latter leaves us liable to see the elderly fall flat on their faces.

A university premised on equity also produces a whole range of detrimental inequalities; it is unfair to put a student who is barely literate on the “spot” in a tutorial discussion just as it is equally unfair to bright, eager students to structure lecturers and tutorial discussions to fit the interests and abilities of the least able. Yet, this is precisely what has taken place as access to the university has opened-up in a happenstance way by the ever-equitable processes of market mechanisms. When admission becomes impartial and indifferent to the abilities and talents of the applicants and students, marking and lecturing do not so much equalize the students to a scholarly standard, but rather the standard becomes equalized by the students.

Though this must happen to maintain a principle of equity before the university, higher education is a process of being taught and tutored by a superior, and in that regard it presupposes a relationship that is quite rare in a society shaped by social levelling   and liberal self-improvement. There is nothing about education that is fair or equitable, it is a power-relation that demands one enrolls under the tutorship of another; historically the scholar’s agency lay in the fact that they could refuse to continue being a scholar; a dimension of power the designation of student entirely lacks.

In the past, students were to be gauged on their weaknesses and challenged in the areas where they needed improvement. Such fine-tuning is utterly impossible if  a professor  has a class of 60 students and cannot manage to learn students’ names until nearly the end of the semester, if they learn them at all. The consequences are an emphasis on class management over pedagogy, and the former produces passive learners and the equalization of assignments down to the knowledge of the class. The project of education, of course, was hardly to lower the bar to the students but to get students to reach a standard set for them as deemed necessary, which is now seldom possible with the constraints on time in which we operate. Mass education places the power relation outside the hands of the students and the professor and into the system that facilitates their meeting. Neither party is particularly empowered, nor feels as such, in the roles through which they confront one another.

So, it can be argued that far from education conditioning liberal democratic life, it is the impersonal rule and social levelling of liberal democracy that conditions higher education, up to and including liberal arts degrees. If we cannot defend the liberal arts degree as the lifeblood of liberal democracies, what firmer ground can we retreat to in defense of our disciplines?

Not without great irony, it seems, others are doing our work for us in their claims that liberal arts educations are invaluable in a society that increasingly lacks a firm employment structure. The wave of automation has yet to hit an apex. It is estimated that if Uber were to automate its vehicle fleet, it alone would destroy some ten million jobs by 2025 in America.9 If it is true that a liberal arts degree teaches students how to think critically and teach themselves new things, then it will be invaluable component of the new proletarian, of which the millennial generation is the vanguard force. Sadly, we must contend ourselves with the unceremonious and philistine position that liberal arts degrees will be good for business; especially for an elite that will soon commit to rapidly inventing and disbanding careers in an 18-month tech cycle. Democratic culture will have to make do.

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 Aaron Henry has written and published many non-fiction articles, and long-form essays in the Montreal Review, Policy Options, and several op-eds in the Global and Mail. He has also published a non-fiction manuscript, “Districts, Documentation, and Population in Rupert’s Land,” (2020) with Palgrave Macmillan on the Hudson’s Bay Company.

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MORE FROM THE SAME AUTHOR

A GENERATION OF SCRAPPERS

Aaron James Henry

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Notes:

1 Goldie Blumenstyk, American Higher Education in Crisis; Robin Levinson King, “Is there any point to an ats degree” in The Star. August 30th, 2013; Scott Jaschik, “Obama vs. At History” Inside Higher Education, January 31st, 2014. Daniel L Porterfield, “College rankings crush liberal arts educations. It’s time to revalue it” The Washington Post. September 15th, 2015.

2 Margaret Wente’s Globe and Mail piece epitomizes this position “Educated for Unemployment” published online May 15, 2012. Jenna Goudreau “The ten Worst College Degrees” in Forbes makes a similar point. The theme of lack of employability and the failure of the humanities is reiterated in the popular book, Sell Out Your Soul: How to Find a Career With Your Humanities Degree in 126 days.

3 The counterargument appears with more frequency than the charges. “The Relevance of Liberal Arts to a Prosperous Democracy: Under-Secretary Martha J. Kanter’s Remarks at the Annapolis Group Conference” June 22, 2010, U.S Department of Education. “Liberal Arts education for enlightened citizens” in Deccan Herald published June 19, 2014.

4 White college educated men support Trump over Clinton, 49 to 42 percent, in The New York Times, July 14th, 2016, Thomas B. Edsall.

5 Political Office is framed as being open to all members of society. Anyone is eligible to enter government or become a representative of the state. However, formal political equality in law exists with substantive social and economic inequality. It is for this reason that despite equality under the law there is not a single parliamentary M.P drawn from the service sector or from manual labour see Parlinfo, www.parl.gc.ca.

6 Nowhere is this trend most apparent than in complacent liberal democratic societies, such as Canada. Even in election where the decision was, purportedly about affirming that the government should do more to stave off the existential threat of climate change, less than 66% of eligible voters turned up.

7 Even Brexit, a once, or possibly several, in a lifetime decision to leave a supranational economic system still only drew 72% of the national population. See Dunford and Ashley Kirk, “How did turnout affect the EU referendum result” in The Telegraph, July 1st, 2016.

8 Weber, Max,"Bureauacracy", in Max Weber, eds. Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills, 196-244. New York: Oxford University Press, 1946.

 
 
 
 
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