Liberal Education as an End in Itself: Retrieving That Crazy Idea (Installment 2)

Posted on January 2, 2018

In the first part of this article, I highlighted the problem of turning higher education into merely a means to the end of economic success. In this second part, I focus on resources that can help academics send a more balanced message to the public about the value of higher education.


In the 19th century, John Henry Newman famously and valiantly defended the ideal of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, education as its own end. He did so in his book The Idea of a University, a classic that ought to be required reading for those working in higher education today. Newman says of knowledge that it is “valuable for what its very presence in us does for us after the manner of a habit, even though it be turned to no further account, nor subserve any direct end” (Newman, 79). He adds that “there is a knowledge worth possessing for what it is, and not merely for what it does” and that the “object” and “mission” of the university is “intellectual culture” (Newman, 85, 92).

Newman’s defense of the intrinsic value of education has roots in Western culture’s deepest religious and philosophical traditions, and its echoes can be heard in many discussions of the university. Its influence is evident in Robert Maynard Hutchins’ wonderful 1953 essay The University of Utopia (where, by the way, there are no accrediting agencies). In this essay, the former president of the University of Chicago writes that “Art and thought are the highest activities of man. They are the aims of life, and society should be organized to promote them first of all. It is a sign of a backward civilization when in a financial crisis the first thing the community thinks of is to close the art museums and reduce expenditures on education. A civilization without art and thought, or one that does not value them, is a pack rather than a civilization” (Hutchins, 17-18). In order to have a civilization rather than a pack, the US must have strong and independent colleges and universities—places where people, first and foremost, think (Hutchins, 87). Given the calls by conservative politicians to slash public funding for the arts and higher education, Hutchins’ defense of both is perhaps more timely now than in his day.

Liberal Education as an End in Itself: Retrieving That Crazy Idea

Posted on November 30, 2017

Higher education has a marketing problem—one that is partly of its own making.

We all know that the public relations situation of higher education is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the general public continues to believe in the value of higher education. A 2015 survey indicates that 95 percent of the population finds it “very important” or “somewhat important” that a person has a degree or other professional certification beyond high school.[1] A more recent survey from the civic enterprise organization New America shows that 75 percent of the American public agrees (strongly or somewhat) with the statement “It is easier to be successful with a college degree than without.”[2] That percentage goes up to 84 percent among Generation Z (those students just about to enter college or in college now).[3] The information here is good news. Americans think that what colleges and universities have to offer is of value, and they want it for themselves and for their children.

On the other hand, why Americans want what higher education is selling is both interesting and somewhat problematic. What Americans mean by “successful” tends to be simply financial advantage. In the Gallup-Lumina survey, 70 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that having a degree or professional certification beyond high school is “essential” for getting a good job.[4] The Freshman Survey from the Higher Education Research Institute shows that the views of the typical first-year student strongly align with those of the general population. While recent years have shown a slight decline in the percentage of students who cite economic reasons for pursuing a college degree, the numbers still are quite high. For 2015, 85.2 percent indicated that getting “a better job” was a “very important” reason for pursuing a college degree, and 69.9 percent indicated that making “more money” was a “very important” reason.[5]

What’s the Cost? Impacts of ‘Free Speech’ demonstrations on College Campuses

Posted on October 30, 2017

On October 28, 2017, the National Socialist Movement, the League of the South, Vanguard America, and the Traditionalist Worker Party, planned two events entitled “White Lives Matter” in Middle Tennessee, near the campus of Middle Tennessee State University.[1] These groups all participated in the Charlottesville, Virginia “Unite the Right” rally earlier this year, and because of the violence and racist ideology expressed at that event, members of the campus community were justifiably concerned.[2] These planned protests unquestionably impacted MTSU, and this article explores several aspects of the impact these protests had on campus.

Of course, white supremacist action on or near university campuses is not new. Richard Spencer is currently on what he describes as a college tour, with stops at the University of Virginia and the University of Florida, leaving tumult and lawsuits in his wake.[3] The University of Florida spent upwards of $500,000 on security upgrades on campus and in the surrounding areas in preparation for the rally there, and the Florida government declared a state of emergency ahead of the speech.[4] In addition, various white supremacist organizations are recruiting on college campuses.[5] Taken together, these actions leave college campuses in the unfortunate position of determining how to allow for the free expressions of ideologies that conflict with the values of many members of the campus community, while maintaining the safety of all students. It is no surprise that the message that these groups tout is taken by many students as an affront to their very identity.