by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Jay Schalin of the Martin Center asks readers of his latest column to “be reasonable. but not naive” as they ponder problems plaguing American higher education.
Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education is indeed a reasonable book. Drawing on thinkers from John Locke to Allan Bloom, Ursinus College political theory professor Jonathan Marks cuts through the excesses of higher education commentary and makes a compelling case that the underlying problem at the heart of higher education‘s troubles is a crisis of purpose, one that it is unwilling to address or even acknowledge:
Unfortunately, from Harvard on down, the statements of purpose and principle that supposedly animate our colleges and universities may as well have been produced by Mad Libs. Adjectives, like integrative, interdisciplinary, interconnected, entrepreneurial, twenty-first century, complex, dynamic, and problem-solving, are distributed among brochures as if at random to make it appear that something buzzy is going on.
That array of weasel-words—part Madison Avenue and part academic market research, with a dash of carnival barker thrown in—is intended to veil and seduce, not inform.
Those whom higher education wishes to impress, including students, parents, the media, corporate partners, and legislators, are less interested in esoteric musings about developing the powers of reason than the promise of a brighter economic and political future. Excitement and future-speak sell more than calm thoughtfulness; the sales pitch has become the mission, for the true mission is not particularly marketable. As Marks notes:
“Rather, we’re covering up our inability to state what the main aim of liberal education is by promising to tend to all aims and to be up to date, not to say cool.”
Marks’ argument for restoring “reason” to its proper position at the center of higher education is the book’s great strength. In highly accessible language, he explains that higher education’s true purpose is (or, perhaps, ought to be),
“to cultivate in our students an experience of and a taste for reflecting on fundamental questions, for following arguments where they lead, and for shaping their thoughts and actions in accordance with what they can learn from those activities.”