A Scary, Sneaky Assault

While we’ve been distracted by the Right’s bogus hysteria about Critical Race Theory somehow being taught in the nation’s kindergartens, the more determined assault on education is evidently occurring on university campuses.

I have previously posted about the decision of Marian College’s President to eliminate that school’s department of Political Science–a decision made over the strenuous objection of the faculty. The scuttlebutt from people ostensibly “in the know” was that the move was motivated by the personal animus of the school’s right-wing (and widely disliked) President for the sole remaining tenured member of that department–a (gasp!) political liberal.

Evidently, however, what I thought was a petty move by an unpopular administrator at a small school wasn’t the “one-off” I’d imagined. According to the website The Baffler,

This is not the story of one department at one college. An hour’s drive to the northwest of Marian, at Purdue University, it is the English department that faced threats. Citing budgetary concerns, the board of trustees halted the acceptance of any new students and proposed cuts to non-tenured faculty. This includes the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing, which until recently included the trailblazing Haitian American author Roxane Gay. Other departments at other universities and colleges around the country are facing similar cuts.

“The ostensible reason provided for these cuts and terminations is “prioritization,” a term used by university administrators to rank which programs deserve funding and attention. One such “prioritization” committee at St. Joseph’s College in New York described it as a ranking of “centrality and essentiality,” “demand and opportunity,” and “productivity, revenue, and resources.” If the terms sound like university administrator gobbledygook, that’s because they are, cleverly disguising administrative judgments as some sort of due process. Around the country it is terms just like these that have been thrown at social science and liberal arts departments. Suddenly, faculty in these departments are expected to justify why they exist and why anyone would need a degree in English.

According to the article, pseudo-business terms like “prioritization” are being used to disguise what are really politically motivated assaults on liberal education.

Prioritization routinely argues that engineering departments need to be the ones getting more money and resources from the administration. Unlike English or political science, which are seen as useless and pointless majors, engineering and computer science carry an implicit promise of a job. Who needs to have read Shakespeare or know about how our political system works when you can rush off to be one among the armies of coders who make our digiverse possible?

In reality, “prioritization” debates, particularly in deep red states, are excellent covers for changing the political demographics of American colleges and universities.

This is just the latest iteration of the Right’s longstanding effort to substitute job training and/or religious indoctrination for education. As Will Bunch recently wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer,

you can draw a straight line between the country’s collective decision to stop seeing education as a public good aimed at creating engaged and informed citizens but instead a pipeline for the worker drones of capitalism, and the 21st century’s civic meltdown that reached its low point nearly one year ago, in the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Back in 1999, dismay over  that effort prompted me to post about the importance of the liberal arts.  

Studying the liberal arts gives students the worldview–the intellectual paradigm– citizens need in order to function in an era of rapid change.

We inhabit a world that is increasingly global and multicultural. Familiarity with human history, philosophy, literature, sociology and anthropology prepares us to encounter, appreciate and thrive in that world. Education in the liberal arts is based upon a profound respect for the importance of human liberty. The life of the mind requires freedom to access and consider any and all ideas, information, and points of view. Critical thinking cannot flower in a totalitarian environment.

Technocrats can live with Big Brother, but artists, poets and philosophers cannot.

Learning how to communicate, learning how to learn–and learning how much there is to learn!– are essential survival skills. If all one learns is a trade–no matter how highly compensated the particular trade might be–he or she is lost when that trade is no longer in demand. Even if that never happens, lack of familiarity with the liberal arts makes it far less likely that an individual’s non-work life will be full and rich.

Despite the Right’s distaste for expertise, evidence, and smarty-pants “intellectuals,” America desperately needs educated people. The survival of democracy requires an educated population– and there’s a significant difference between learning a trade, important as that may be, and becoming educated.

That difference is the liberal arts–and that’s why they are being targeted. 


  1. Thanks for the excellent defense of a liberal arts education. That’s what I have, an education, not a degree. Few see the difference anymore.

  2. Will is partially correct in writing, “the country’s collective decision to stop seeing education as a public good aimed at creating engaged and informed citizens but instead a pipeline for the worker drones of capitalism.”

    It is NOT the “country’s collective decision.”

    It is the decision of oligarchy and the media and politicians they control. Period.

    This is the locked-in paradigm of oligarchic-controlled capitalism with propaganda media and two corrupted political parties. It’s heading for self-destruction.

    What is the difference between healthcare and the knowledge industry right now?

    They are basically the last two public realms getting attacked by the machine of Neoliberalism. Once again, think Matrix and Orwell. 😉

  3. “We inhabit a world that is increasingly global and multicultural. Familiarity with human history, philosophy, literature, sociology and anthropology prepares us to encounter, appreciate and thrive in that world.”

    In Indianapolis Public Schools in the 1940s we walked into school each day with classical music playing on the PA system, we all knew the name of the selection and the composer. We also studied one famous painting and the artist’s history each year. We were introduced to the arts which few would learn in their homes. We also had physical education and health classes; we learned racism and bigotry in our homes and neighborhoods but not the right or wrong of them. We were also taught the meanng of the holidays we celebrated and participated during WWII by accepting shortages of food and many other items. We brought newspapers and magazines for paper drives to aid in the war effort and cans of fat which we understood were needed in the manufacture of ammunition. We bought War Bonds at school to aid in the war effort. Memorial Day was May 30th no matter what day of the week it fell on and we brought flowers from home to place in buckets of water in the entryways which the Janitor, Mr. Morris, carried in his truck to local cemeteries to place on military graves.

    We began our education in public schools by being taught liberal arts, simply that we were being given options to aid us in decisions we were to make later in life. Our generation has a deeper understanding of the dangers we are facing today. The misconception that a college degree is required to succeed in life is just that, a misconception. The mention of Purdue University brought to mind that Governor Mitch Daniels appointed a number of Purdue Board members who, in turn, appointed him President of Purdue University who makes decisions based on his personal political beliefs. He groomed and left his play book for Mike Pence which qualified him within the Republican party to choose to run with Trump as his Vice President. That brings us to this day; January 6, 2022, the first anniversary of the first attempted insurrection to overturn an election and, in turn, overturn our entire government. We can trace the future of our nation back to Mitch Daniels and I didn’t need a college degree to understand the route taken by local and national Republicans and Mitch Daniels’ play book. It is doubtful Mike Pence had the knowledge or the guts to make the decision alone to return to the Capitol Building after his life was threatened by his own party led by his closest associate Donald Trump. Who gave Pence the strength of character, or warning, to return to democracy, Rule of Law and his oath of office to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America?

    Liberal Arts are taught “…to chiefly provide general knowledge and to develop general capacities (as reason and judgement) as opposed to professional or vocational skills.” Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary

    Without the above definition of life skills we have the current Republican party. An Oscar Wilde quote, “No man is rich enough to buy back his past.” Will this be proven to be true or be debunked by Trump and his followers with the outcome of the January 6th Investigation Committee?

  4. Having a liberal arts degree in languages, we had professors that were well balanced in their roles. Critical theory is opposed because it produces division in whatever mode its delivered. Along with Project 1619 it avoids the true history of slavery from its beginnings and historians oppose the comboned teaching of CRT and Project1619. Globalism is the goal of people who are afraid of culture that might produce another Nazi Germany. Yet those like Soros and the New York Times were either a part of or directly ignored the demise of jews by Nazi Germany.
    Authors and historians are now showing in there writings the true nature of NYT paper. Sad but true.
    History needs to be taught not the indoctrination of CRT, the theory should be looked at and judged for its truth and disinformation.

  5. The personal economics of a college education is a sobering challenge facing many extended families across the nation and around the world. I can more openly participate in a debate as to the integrity of a liberal arts curriculum in an institution of higher education as long as we also include a measure to which the institution graduates students with the least reliance on student debt burden.

  6. I am often confounded by the lack of knowledge of otherwise well educated people regarding those things that make life interesting, that is art, music, literature, and philosophy. I am all too aware of Mitch’s imprint on Purdue and I have informed them that I will not give to the university until they appoint an academician to the presidency and dump the political hack.

    That said, the destruction of liberal arts education is a foundational element of the Koch and friends’ annual gatherings. As usual, we get what they pay for and they pay for an uninformed populace.

  7. This is one of the rare instances when Todd gets it right. Yes, the oligarchs have been trying to destroy “liberal” education ever since the end of World War II. Inject the Koch empire’s “investments” in college chairs of their own invention and you see the beginnings of the deterioration of truth being taught in colleges and even high schools. This latest idiocy about critical race theory is the most recent lie coming from those who want to control the narrative about how people think from virtually the time they are born.

    Read Jane Mayer’s “Dark Money” again to validate these comments today. Evil is afoot, America, and it’s being perpetrated by the richest of the rich for the purpose of having it ALL at the expense of millions. Is it any wonder that the United States has the lowest social advancement index of any industrialized nation? It was planned that way.

  8. Purdue recently added Civic literacy to graduation requirements for its incoming classes citing a paucity of understanding of how our government works. Given that the bulk of Purdue students are from in state, the irony is beyond rich that all of the students there right now were educated under Republican governors. Starting with Mitch Daniels.

  9. Thank you JoAnn
    Yes Vernon, I have noticed when Todd leaves ☺ faces he has excellent points

  10. I took a degree in economics with a minor in political science before going to law school. The students I talk to today about tuition costs are amazed. As an undergraduate I paid $3.25 per semester hour and was ripped off for $4.25 an hour at the IU law school. This was in the pre- Mitch and his ilk days when the Indiana legislature was more generous with its educational appropriations, and before the days when Koch Industries and their fronts had their names slapped in front of business schools, i.e., their “naming rights,” which in and of itself is not so bad if they didn’t also invade such schools’ curricula with their right wing propaganda. (It hasn’t always been that way; I remember taking two semesters of Labor Economics during the Truman era and our professor was the former general counsel for the AFL-CIO.) I suppose that by Todd’s standard I am destined to serve the oligarchy whether right or left but given such a stark choice I’ll vote for my oligarchs.

    I also recall taking five hour elective in Human Anatomy and Physiology which if flunked could do serious damage to one’s GPA. All students were male in those days. On the first day a fellow student asked: “Pre med or pre dent?” I said: “Pre law.” He said: “What are you doing in here? This is the flunkout course for med school!” I thought of dropping it what with my fellow students humping for A’s and a professor who may grade on the curve, but didn’t, and guess what? I passed and it came in handy in personal injury cases later on when my opponents’ doctors were on the stand using their Latin descriptions in their attempts to snow adverse counsel.

    STEM reigns supreme these day at the cost of arts and sciences for scarce educational dollars, and with precinct committeemen such as Daniels playing president of a great university, it is hard to remember that it was a Purdue grad who first walked on the moon.

  11. I have a good friend who is a CPA. We have very interesting and worthwhile conversations but one of the topics that we have tread on, though lightly, is that from my perspective when he looks at the world he sees only dollars, and truthfully, I only see science. I suppose both of us can claim that is how we made our livings.

    As he has kids still in the process of becoming adults he likes to tell me how hard it is to teach the kids his perspective. I don’t remember the same effect on mine but that was long ago and truthfully some of me did rub off on them somehow.

    Of course I remember some like him when I worked for a living and he comments that he encounters some like me in his work. What allows progress though is how we chose and choose to work together and converse, respectfully and thoughtfully and purposefully and collaboratively seem to be ingredients of progress.

    I don’t encounter much of that in social and on entertainment media.

  12. Thanks, Sheila, for your defence of liberal education. Beyond what’s happened at Marian, the entire sector of liberal arts colleges is on life support, and many have already closed, merged or changed their missions (gutting traditional humanities and social science departments, adding professional programs in business, finance, information security, rehabilitation services, etc., and scaling back on general education). I left Indiana over twenty years ago to take on leadership roles at two different public liberal arts colleges—places that aspired to offer the type of undergraduate experience found at a Franklin, Earlham, Hanover, or Wabash College, but in the public sector at public prices, with a commitment to access and therefore with far more diverse student bodies. It’s no surprise, given the politics of Indiana, that the state lacks such an institution.

    In an important column in the NYT yesterday, Rebecca Solnit wrote about the increasing gullibility of large swaths of the electorate—whether it’s believing that the 2020 election was stolen, or that Sandy Hook was a hoax, or that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and is a secret Muslim, or that Hillary Clinton was trafficking children in the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor, or that critical race theory is being taught in K-12 schools across America, or that COVID is a hoax and vaccinations a plot to secretly implant microchips in people, or …, or …. The list goes on and on. These fictions are swallowed by a gullible public, but that’s not where they originate and that’s not whose interests they serve.

    Solnit writes: “Distinctions between believable and unbelievable, true and false, are not relevant for people who have found that taking up outrageous and disprovable ideas is instead an admission ticket to a community or an identity.” Of course, the skills to think critically, to question, and to undertake research are exactly what liberal education teaches. Is it any wonder, then, that liberal education is increasingly de-valued?

    Solnit continues: “Democracy is premised on the belief that we can trust ordinary people to make consequential decisions. It’s in some ways an enlightenment ideal premised on another enlightenment ideal: the triumph of reason and the capacities of ordinary people. To buy into it, you have to believe that people will be more loyal to principles and discernment than to leaders and groups, and in that sense, democracy has always been a risky project.”

    She captures here, I think, the reasoning that led me, you, and many of our colleagues to become educators and to dedicate our lives to the ideals of liberal education. The irony, as that project is increasingly marginalized, is that soon we ourselves will no longer “trust ordinary people to make consequential decisions.” And where does that leave us?

  13. leaving the door open to so called philanthropy,via the koch bros,style will allow the changes,if,opening a door, for others who want to game the system to put into pace,a distraction, then change the system. though ive never went further than basic education,the life long education i have is mainly from paying attention to my survival details. education as ive seen can trap one into a corner. or better,being educated however you manage it, to other possibilities. dealing with more than one political,economical,or social group. pushing the bounderies of knowlege,is manditory. freethinking and your own moral needs, spread it out,to those who seek a avenue to walk down,mentor someone else,always keep abreast of changes,and maintain a democracy that put us there. i lived in a few big cities,there i was crossing paths with others who were educared,diverse,and had a stimulating knowlege to listen to. if you pick your education,one needs to pick a life long goal,beyond education. supporting a higher education that isn in my political spectrum would seem moot.ive read many a piece on how the so called donations to higher ed,only came with policy changes. off course,the wall street mob has decided to flease ones life before its started,whereas,many a country,such a Germany educates for free. the type of citizen and industry is a reflection on this. if universities have money issues, then those who have made it in this so called economy here, should stand up and spread thier wealth to others,so we may have a country that isnt poor,in the sense of knowlege. if your hording for the need to demand,then you have become the reason why our countries education is failing..move on,you know where you can shove your wealth..

  14. JM – might be interesting to see how Purdue defines/tests for “civic literacy”? Name the 3 branches of the Federal government?

  15. A Berger:
    ive lived in NoDak for about 30 years,im from the NYC/Newark metro area,lived in L.A.Ca in the 70s, when i moved here,many a person i met went to the colleges,universities,here in nodak, mainly to the ag industry. ive delt with many of them in a buisness of transporting something to or for them.
    i would imagine them educated to be informed.. being alot of them had thier lifes work handed down to them. at one time democratic politics were the norm here. the changes,as i see them,as here today at this subject,is also a effect of local radio changes. just before the internet, many of the local radio stations were bought up by cumlus and such. programs began to tell people that Sen,Dorgan or sen.Dashel would tax em to death,though they were instrumental in support of ag,and pass legislation that kept rural farming alive,over corp intrests.the talk started,fox news and limbaugh was now the conversation. that was the change. being deep rural at the time,and timing is everything, the internet came to introduce itself,as a easy way to any information. hense,society here got lazy,and if it managed to tell the locals how goverment is screwing you.(unless your a republican)well it was done. no one i deal with here today reads a newspaper,listens beyond the constant cafe fox news coffee circle.
    and im sure,the education here in nodak.seriously hasnt a bonified civics class in any amount..

  16. Elsener raises lots of money from the mostly deeply conservative Catholic alums and the political cronies he courts. Most of those older alum were raised in a faith that demanded lockstep compliance to a very patriarchal and authoritarian leadership. To question resulted in condemnation and marginalization if not outright expulsion.
    His son is a young graduate of Marian who heads the Marion County Republican Party and is surrounded by others like him who opine that their political science classes bear no relevance to what he does in his job. Could it possibly be that his job is propagandizing not civic engagement?
    The business forces that drive the current Republican Party have sold the public at large on the idea that education means job training. The tax payers foot the bill for that job training initially and continuously in the form of student loan debt . It removes the cost of training their employees from their balance sheet, thus increasing compensation and profits to themselves and their shareholders. By removing civic education in all forms from the curricula, they insure the same kind of enforced conformity that conservative religions demand. Authoritarianism, no matter how named, results.

  17. I don’t know if I would agree Elsener is “right wing.” He is a Republican, but I never recall him taking conservative positions. My memory is that he was always willing to support opening the taxpayer pocketbook to give money to developers and government contractors. That’s typical of all Indy politicians, Democrats and Republicans.

    I’ve had extensive arguments with friends about what is better – liberal arts education v. those universities/colleges that award degrees in various programs. I think you are off base saying that conservatives oppose liberal arts education. Some of the biggest advocates of liberal arts education are far right conservatives. I can think of one right now – I will call him “Bob” – who is very right wing and was involved in charter school development in Indiana. Bob argued to me that the purpose of a college education was to provide someone a well-rounded education that they could use in various areas and in life in general. He was essentially arguing for liberal arts education.

    I went to a liberal arts school, Hanover College, before moving on to Ball State then IU law school. I also taught as an adjunct instructor at IUPUI and University of Indianapolis for about 25 years. I think I have a pretty good perspective on what students need from higher education. I could not agree less with Bob. The job market today requires a specialization that liberal arts education does not provide. The purpose of college is to get people ready for the world of work that awaits them. They need to have the knowledge to move forward into their chosen career.

    With all due respect, college is not for everyone. There is nothing wrong with the post-high school education that trains people for many of the high paying skilled trades out there. Those people are valuable members of society and their job prospects are not enhanced with college.
    (Not to mention getting that college degree costs a small fortune.) You’d be shocked the number of college graduates, even people with advanced degrees, working at Amazon warehouses, for example.

    With all due respect, I think some of the views of higher education on here might be outdated.

  18. Paul Ogden,

    Please pick up my book, “Saving the Seed Corn…” on Amazon. In it you will find many bits and stats supporting most of the discussion on today’s blog. One major point is the dissolution of trade/vocational education in public schools. It’s simply too expensive for strapped (Read Republican funding cuts.) districts. Vocational ed. requires significant capital investment and the liability insurance rates are through the roof.

    The cynic in me says that’s the way Republicans planned it. But, given my very low esteem for Republican brains, it’s probably just an accident resulting from their Friedman/Reagan/Regan mind farts about economics.

  19. The elimination of liberal arts, social sciences and political science from higher education institutions is the fulfillment of one of the goals of the Lewis Powell memo to the R ight Wing and the Chamber of Commerce

  20. The social sciences and the humanities have been under attack almost as long as there have been universities (as opposed to liberal arts colleges). Read Veblen and the various muckracking studies of American universities in the late nineteenth and early 20th century. One of the reasons for these attacks, as Veblen noted, was the business dominance of the boards of universities and the fact that university presidents, who Veblen noted were, from an academic point of view, scholarly mediocrities, were appointed by boards and reflected the business mentalities (Taylorism, status, prestige) of the business dominated boards.

  21. By the way, right wingism and conservatism have different historical roots. Threads of each have become prominent, along with historic White supremacism in US and the Western world, to produce modern American right wingism. That said, there are still tensions between right wingism and conservatism.

  22. I love the contention that critical approaches to history are indoctrination. Why do I love it? It is looney. First off, all societies and all groups socialise whether they are New Zealand or the Methodist Church. Second, such socialisation is often mythic. Myth history, a history that prefers fairy tales to reality, a reality that is often contradictory and messy, is the equivilent of that fairy tale “Pretty Woman”. That most prefer unthinking boosterist myths, such as American exceptionalism or Mormon exceptionalism, should not be surprising given the popularity of media fairy tales in the broader culture. Needless to say, such fairy tale myths are not and never will be reality.

  23. Several departments at the local Purdue University campus were told they “had to show a profit” or else they’d be closed. That included the French and German department, just the kinds of departments you might think were necessary to appeal to a global economy.

    The kicker was that the Women’s Studies department was also targetted, but it actually, according to the metrics in use, actually turned a profit, and thereby remained.

  24. I think it would be instructive to reread “The Death of Socrates”. Socrates’ crime was corrupting the youth of Athens, by encouraging them to think for themselves instead of simply following the accepted thinking of the majority. He was to be put to death or exiled, his choice. He chose death.

    Don’t ever wonder why critical thinking is not taught with any regularity or emphasis. That to me is the basis of the liberal arts, to question and to know how to conduct research to find answers. I was very fortunate to be able to earn a liberal arts degree in philosophy at IUPUI, back in the day when fees were affordable and education was exciting.

  25. I am reminded of a Freakonomics podcast discussing learning a foreign language.
    While noting that learning a second language seems to have an effect on remaining mentally agile as we age, that didn’t matter, nor did the unmentioned saving by not having to hire caretakers for those who were spared mental decline. Those were unaccounted economic factors, too complex for freakonomics.

    They, of course, didn’t care about the intangibles of learning of different cultures, being able to trade more easily, etc. Think of a Mayor, like La Guardia, who spoke French, German, Croatian, Hungarian, Italian, Yiddish, and English; think of our “founding fathers” who usually studied Greek and Latin at an early age; think of Secretary Pete.

    No, the only thing that counted for the Freakonomic boys was salary. Such a narrow perspective.

    Of course, as a philosophy major with advanced degrees in science, who works in IT and has taught programming, I may have a certain prejudice for a liberal arts education.

    On of my heroes was Harry, a retired exec from Vlassics, who was a philosophy major with me. He went on to earn a Masters in history when he was in his seventies, and I know if his health had held up, he wanted to pursue a PhD in something (he wasn’t certain when we talked about it) – He just believed in education – as much and as broad as possible

    The cost of higher education is an issue, but the cost should be tamed; we shouldn’t recreate the institutions as cost/salary-based training camps.

  26. If you can keep the people ignorant, you can convince them that all they need is a job, with no reason to question the
    elites, no need to rock the boat, just watch TV, watch sports, have some beers…eat some Soma…leave the thinking to
    the elites, teach them to expect their reward in the next life.

Comments are closed.