In his 1989 essay, “The Privatization of the Good,” Alasdair MacIntyre writes that the failure of a liberal society to adopt a common vision of the good ultimately dismantles any shared moral foundation in that society. Liberal society does not seek to direct its citizens towards the good; instead, it tries to create space for individuals to pursue their own visions of good. But consistent moral claims in law, argues MacIntyre, require an overarching system of morality endorsed by the political community: “Insofar as it is this liberal vision that has been embodied in the social practice of contemporary advanced societies, the good has been privatized.
Something similar is happening in college. In the wake of our society’s privatization of the good, liberal education is in decline. Modern liberal education is no longer oriented towards the formation of moral and intellectual character but towards the acquisition of particular skills. Liberal universities are opening countless new specialized departments while eliminating basic requirements and rigorous curricula. Schools give their students ample “freedom” to limit themselves to their preferred areas of study. Not all schools have adopted Brown University’s “open curriculum” without requirements, but the trend is to increasingly allow students to choose their own courses. As a common vision of liberal education is dismantled, truth becomes privatized. This broad freedom of choice – the ability to direct one’s own ends – fits perfectly with the ideals of liberalism. The rejection of comprehensive curricula follows the abandonment of explicitly prescriptive laws and the public promotion of traditional morality.
The traditional telos of society is the common good. As MacIntyre observes, any transcendent notion of the common good is lost in a liberal society. Instead, men pursue their own private goods until they no longer even speak with a shared moral vocabulary. Like liberal society, the new compartmentalized and specialized education no longer seeks to direct pupils towards its telos, the truth. Instead, it allows individuals space to pursue their own conception or aspect of what truth is, focusing on promoting “academic excellence” and “global competitiveness”. From now on, each student, like each citizen, can choose his own telos.
Historically, “liberal” education meant the very opposite of expansive autonomy for the student. Instead, each student was subjected to a comprehensive curriculum, such as Columbia University’s famous classical curriculum (which has also been scaled back in recent years). By learning the great tradition and wisdom of its predecessors—by seeing the various ways in which human society has pursued truth, beauty, and goodness—students gain perspective on the current world and can see current times in context. wider. A liberal education is restrictive in content, but it is designed to liberate the mind – to provide the student with the tools necessary to apprehend and pursue the good.
Thus, to the man who is truly liberally educated, the expansive choices of the modern student represent no new blessings of freedom. Instead, expanding the choice leads to more confusion.
As a current student at the University of Notre Dame, I am receiving a supposedly “elite” liberal education – one of the best our society has to offer. But if that last statement is true, as I believe it is, it reflects worse on the state of education in America than it does on Notre Dame. Notre Dame students are still required to complete two theology courses and one philosophy course, along with several other “basic requirements”. But beyond these requirements, students have great latitude in what specific courses they take and when they take them.
Thus, we will study Descartes in a room full of students who have never encountered the Aristotelian framework he is trying to deconstruct. Likewise, students can read how Kant grapples with the perceived moral problems presented by the “new natural science” without ever taking courses in evolution or Newtonian physics. Whether the deconstruction of Descartes succeeds or the philosophy of Kant is necessary to preserve objective morality, it is indisputable that students will not engage sufficiently with either thinker without a comprehensive and carefully curated core curriculum ordered. Such a program would teach the background of these thinkers and the underlying premises before handing a student Meditations on First Philosophy Where The criticism of pure reason.
Eliminating a structured curriculum allows students to have more choices. But as a result, no student can choose to study liberal arts sequentially, with a cohort of students taking courses in a logical sequence alongside them. By removing basic requirements, universities are choosing licensing over training.
‘Basic curricula’, where they exist, are perhaps the last vestige of modern formative education. Whenever a university determines that all students must take a particular course, the school claims that no matter what the students think is good for them, it will in fact be good for them to take the required course. The educational system still maintains certain objective views of goodness. If the privatization of truth can be reversed, so can the broader societal rejection of objective and normative moral claims.
But without radical change, liberal politics’ rejection of “homework” will continue to trump education. And the privatization of truth will prevent anyone from substantially contradicting or exposing the opinions of others. Liberty and license will be united in public law and private education: each citizen will be able to pursue his own good and learn his own truth. The privatization of truth is one more rupture between man and the eternal order, leaving him more and more vulnerable to the puffs of his temporal superiors.
W. Joseph DeReuil is an undergraduate student at the University of Notre Dame and editor of the Irish road. His writings have already appeared in first things, The American Conservativeand the National Catholic Register.
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