The Liberal Arts and the New "Student Revolt"

John Moser

April 1, 2003

In the 1960s and 1970s young university professors peppered their lectures with denunciations of the war in Vietnam; in the 1980s they sneered at the Reagan administration; and in almost every case their words had been met with appreciative laughs, or at least respectful silence. They had grown used to having students dutifully listen to their words, with only a rogue conservative now and then speaking up to challenge their ideas. And, of course, it was no real challenge for someone with a Ph.D. to put an errant student in his place.

But now, it seems, things are different. Professors stating their views on the war in Iraq are catching flak from the students themselves. Some students dare to heckle during lectures; others complain to the administration that professors are using their courses as platforms for their personal political agendas. At predictably liberal institutions such as Amherst and Berkeley antiwar demonstrations bring out plenty of faculty, but hardly any students.

What is going on here? Clearly students are changing; they see less in faculty that they find worthy of admiration. And this isn’t the first time it’s happened.

In the 1960s the "baby boom" generation converged on colleges and universities across the land, bringing about a revolution in higher education. They demanded more from their college years than a traditional liberal arts curriculum—they wanted relevance. They wanted insights into contemporary social issues such as poverty, civil rights, and the war in Vietnam. They could not be bothered with Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas and John Locke; these were figures of the past, and seemed to offer little of value to the America of the time.

Older faculty members tended to resist the trend; they refused to part with the Great Books, which, they claimed, spoke to something more important than the issues of the day—they spoke to the human condition. Students responded by ignoring them. They could afford to do so, because there were plenty of younger professors to whom they could turn. Young men and women with freshly-earned M.A.’s and Ph.D.’s rushed into the academy, as colleges and universities desperately needed instructors. In many ways they were closer to the students than to their older colleagues; they, too, had a burning desire to solve the country’s social problems. They, too, were attracted to radical ideas. And they wanted very, very much for their students to like them.

The result was a change in the liberal arts curriculum. Out went Aristotle, Aquinas, and Locke, although Marx stayed in the canon. In came new names—names like Fanon, Aptheker, and Chomsky—who offered a ready diagnosis for modern problems (i.e., they were the fault of western values, particularly capitalism). Formal lectures and Socratic dialogues gave way to informal, open-ended rap sessions. Political demonstrations became as much a part of college life as courses. University education became a process by which idealistic young liberals were converted into enthusiastic young radicals, and even if most of them calmed down once they found jobs and began paying taxes and raising families, they would still look back fondly on their years of campus activism.

Students are as restless today as they were in the 1960s. They, too, are looking for "relevance," but by that they mean job skills. They believe that the purpose of a university education is to prepare them for a career, and getting out with a degree, a decent grade point average, and maybe a couple of nice recommendations is all that is really important. They regard their professors, young and old, with the same disdain in which their 1960s counterparts held the older faculty. For them Fanon, Aptheker and Chomsky hold no more appeal than Aristotle, Aquinas, and Locke—just more stuff to memorize for the test, then forget about. After all, once one rejects the notion that an author is capable of speaking to the universal human condition, no written work can make any claim to "relevance" for more than a couple of years.

Yet the situation today is different from that which existed in the 1960s in one very important respect. Back then students could turn to young faculty members for a new vision of the liberal arts curriculum. In some ways it was a debased vision, but a vision nonetheless. Today this is far less the case. It is, of course, well known that more and more university classes are taught not by regular faculty, but rather by adjunct instructors whose status is far too tenuous to depart from local orthodoxies. However, the problem exists even when students are fortunate enough to encounter tenured (or tenure-track) professors. The generation of educators that entered the academy to meet the demand of the baby boomers differed a great deal from those who had arrived in the 1930s and 1940s. Then, unlike now, there were too many jobs and not enough candidates; hiring committees could hardly afford to be picky. Since then, however, the job market has dried up; a single advertisement can attract hundreds of applicants. In such an environment professors on hiring committees see opportunities not to bring fresh new thinking into a department, but rather to bring in younger versions of themselves.

In fact, one might argue that today’s professors are the same as their 1960s-generation predecessors, only more so. The prevailing notion in liberal arts departments today is not only that it is impossible for a writer to speak to a universal human condition; it is now fashionable to claim that no writer can mean anything to anyone outside his or her own ethnic category, socioeconomic class, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Whereas it was once considered enough to push out a few of the Great Books to make room for ones "relevant" to contemporary problems, the ideas of dominant in the academy today view the Great Books as nothing more than an attempt by white male Europeans to impose "hegemony."

Why, then, should we be surprised when students take a narrowly utilitarian view of their education? How can professors complain when they seem to lack any passion for learning as an end in itself? They have, after all, been inculcated with a radical subjectivism that not only suggests that it is wrong to make any sort of value judgment, but that there can logically be no communication across lines of race, class, and gender. According to this world-view, life is nothing more than a constant struggle for power in which the winners get to decide what "truth" is.

This is bad news for those of us in the liberal arts. For one thing, it undermines any claim that a professor might have to truth. If life is really nothing more than a power struggle, what are students likely to think when they see their professors protesting a war to destroy a regime like Saddam Hussein’s, one that has the support of over seventy percent of the U.S. population? Dedicated liberals speaking truth to power? Or an out-of-touch collection of has-beens who still think they are living in the 1960s?

More importantly, it leaves students with no appreciation for why the liberal arts are important. Students today want to understand how education applies to their world as it is, not as left-wing faculty would like to see it. If they are not satisfied that a liberal arts education can be of benefit to them—that it can prepare them not just for a career, but for citizenship—they will reject it in favor of vocational training. At that point, I fear, the liberal arts will become irrelevant—and so will a university education.

John Moser is an assistant professor of history at Ashland University and an Adjunct Fellow of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs.