Henry Mack currently serves as the senior chancellor at the Florida Department of Education, overseeing all higher education, career, technical and adult education, disability education, and economic development activities in the state. He spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly about the state of public higher education in Florida and beyond.

What is the purpose of public higher education in a democratic society?

Principally, it’s to help students acquire the habits of mind and heart necessary to live as informed, virtuous citizens. I say “principally” because there are other educational aims, or purposes, to a university, such as the cultivation of intellectual autonomy or “universal knowledge,” as John Henry Newman once argued. A university should also aim at career preparation, skill acquisition, and other learning objectives specific to one’s “major.” But United States higher education should primarily be concerned with helping to guarantee the successes associated with the American Experiment; it should educate in view of the Common Good.

This belief is certainly not a new one. For example, in his inaugural 1802 presidential address at Bowdoin, Joseph McKeen assured the college’s faculty and students that his institution would “provide the moral, ethical, and cognitive training necessary to fulfill the social obligations students incurred upon receiving a higher education” in the United States. McKeen’s declaration was representative of nearly all other early post-colonial era presidents’ view of the mission of U.S. higher education. “It ought always to be remembered that literary institutions are founded and endowed for the common good, and not for the private advantage of those who resort to them for education,” McKeen said. In 1818, Thomas Jefferson, upon the founding of the University of Virginia, also argued that higher education should develop certain senses of social and intellectual unity in students. It must “enlarge their minds, cultivate their morals, and instill into them the precepts of virtue and order.”

Lastly, and rather importantly, the purpose of higher education in a democracy was always attended with a very specific educational process—one that exposed students, particularly undergraduates, to the Great Books of Western Civilization. In other words, a liberal arts education, in this classical sense, was part-and-parcel with the purpose. Not only did a classical, liberal arts education afford learners an understanding of all choices available to them, enabling them to live life as an informed agent of reason and citizen of a free society, but it exposed students to the conditions of a free society. In short, a Great Books education was the means to social and intellectual unity; it was necessary to achieve higher education’s larger purpose of helping to actualize the Common Good.

Where, in your view, has public higher ed gone wrong in the U.S.?

In two respects: first, in modern times, both the purpose of higher education as the guarantor of our society and the process of liberal learning have been jettisoned, replaced with preprofessional training or a purely formless education in view of unhelpful, broad (largely undefined) aims, like “social justice” or “tolerance.” The kind of education found in Newman’s The Idea of a University, the Yale Report of 1848, or indeed, of nearly every post-colonial college and university, has been lost.

Second, in the wake of the marginalization of both the post-colonial aim and the classical curriculum has come the widespread adoption of literary works or philosophical aims—largely postmodernist in nature—that provide no sense of the “Great Conversation” that has made our democracy possible. This transformation has left the academy—and, by extension, potentially Western Civilization itself—in ruin. Consciously or not, I believe many within the American academy have bought into postmodern philosophy and its accompanying “values” as integral to the modern university’s mission. You see this throughout the humanities and social-science curricula, professional-development seminars for faculty and staff, or other diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings.

But what is postmodernism, exactly? What are its related tenets? What is their relationship to the traditional idea and process of education in the United States and why does it now matter? Answering these questions will give us a fuller picture of where, and how, public higher education has gone awry.

First, postmodernism is generally characterized by the rejection or the “deconstruction” of truth. Here, theorists such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jean-Francois Lyotard certainly act as representatives. They all advance a kind of intellectual skepticism about the idea of the Common Good, “social and intellectual unity,” or a shared vision of the future, discoverable through reason. They also focus on the uncertainty of language, and, at least in the case of Derrida, argue that the meaning of words and the concepts or objects words signify are entirely socially negotiable, indeterminable, and even attended by violence—for which reason Stanford University recently published a list of harmful language, including the use of the word “American.” In short, the aim of postmodernism is to convince us that final meaning, truth, beauty, or even goodness, is beyond reason’s reach—and that any belief to the contrary might be offensive.

Second, postmodernism seeks to “reconstruct” a world fundamentally opposed to our democratic society and its enduring principles. It asserts that our governmental and educational institutions rest on arbitrary, hierarchical, patriarchal, misogynistic, or even racist structures—rejecting merit and achievement, in favor of identity politics or essentialism.

Postmodernism contends that a public education aiming at social and intellectual unity for democratic citizenship is oppressive or inherently prejudiced. Instead, it favors equity over equality, identity over merit, feelings over fact, sociology over science, relativism over realism. It promotes an education without aims, without virtue, without any desire to cultivate intellectual unity—believing that we should be wholly defined by our differences or group identity.

Could you describe the efforts currently underway in Florida to reform public higher education?

First, we must have a higher education system that educates in view of democratic citizenship and does so in a way that mirrors the post-colonial curriculum. It not only aims to ground students in the rich history of the Western Canon, or Great Books, but in doing so, it seeks to restore human reason’s ability to arrive at discernable truths about human nature, the Common Good, and life in a free society. You see, accepting reason’s ability to arrive at knowledge of enduring principles about human nature is constitutive of educating for democratic citizenship; it is not in competition with it. Moreover, accepting reason’s ability to arrive at knowledge of the good is nothing other than appreciation for our natural inclination toward a life of liberty, rationality, and autonomy. This is important because many doubt these claims today; they reject not only the idea of the good but, as we saw, reason’s own ability to unearth it. Any claim to the contrary is immediately met with ad hominem attacks, red herrings, or classical non sequiturs.

Second, insofar as we aim to restore the primacy of reason in higher education in Florida, it implies we are combating the infiltration of postmodernist philosophy as the guiding philosophy of public higher education here. We lament the fact that many of our universities graduate students with an education that is nearly purely formless or silent on the lessons found in the Great Books. What’s worse, it has become an education system that often compels or cultivates the treacherous belief that students should be taught to either hate others based on race, or that the free society we are so fortunate to enjoy is inherently racist, stacked against the marginalized.

In the end, the freedom we enjoy is not just the absence of constraints, or the toleration of many viewpoints, even competing ones, if at all, but the actualization of our rational agency or autonomy, a fundamental or basic human good. If this kind of intellectual autonomy or rationality is indeed an ideal for our democratic society—which Florida believes it is—and if, by intellectual autonomy, we assume the strengthening of the mind’s critical powers and capacity for independent inquiry, then it would make sense to educate students for the kind of self-directedness that makes informed democratic living possible. Contrary to many postmodernists, Rawlsian liberals, and others, it would follow that a democratic, higher education should seek to cultivate specific democratic qualities and virtues required for successful self-rule. Suddenly, those intellectual and moral virtues associated with self-governance, negative liberty, inclusion, respect for property and other such fundamental rights, and so on, become educationally fundamental. What is more, the kinds of educational outcomes—and textbooks!—typically associated with a liberal arts education (Yale, 1828; Newman, 1852), and the classical curriculum of Hutchins (1949) and Harvard (1945) also become especially educationally meaningful and fundamental. This is the kind of higher education that deserves restoration.

How are these efforts consistent with academic principles like freedom of thought and inquiry? And doesn’t a liberal education also presuppose that students should be exposed to a wide range of views—even, or especially, heterodox ones?

These efforts are remarkably consistent; in fact, as I have argued, they aim at it! To be clear, no one is arguing that postmodern philosophy, Rawlsian pluralism, Marxism, and all their implications should not be taught. Again, if intellectual autonomy is the educational aim, students should never be shielded from any significant viewpoint, no matter its absurdity. The argument here is that living in a deliberative, constitutional democracy requires certain things of us; it makes demands on colleges and universities. The presumption is that the structures and successes of our society reset on the free and informed consent of all its members.

In other words, if judgements of policy are viewed as the fixed privileged of the educated elite and not the common task of all, and if “the many” forgo immersion into the philosophical principles and traditions of Western Democracy—that is, an intellectual appreciation of the import of its philosophical principles, rights, and demands—then the concept of free and informed choice, or psychosocial maturity, can hardly be achieved, arguably. Put differently, “critical thinking” and intellectual autonomy as objects of higher education, here, may necessarily involve the assessment of those reasons or traditions for what makes for a successful democracy to begin with. Thus, any graduate of a United States college or university, if he or she is to give evidence of critical thinking in this sense, must have a good understanding of (and the ability to utilize) both the subject-specific principles and ideas behind our democracy (separation of powers, individual rights, citizen participation in decision-making, and so forth) and those logical or philosophical justifications that inform his or her assessment of the status or quality of our democracy (namely, those reasons why the subject-specific principles and ideas are good or true). Far from an affront to academic freedom, then, the kind of higher education Florida desires is one that actually guarantees it.

Photo: Chinnapong/iStock


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