In his 1989 essay, “The Privatization of the Good,” Alasdair MacIntyre writes that a liberal society's failure to endorse a common vision of the good ends up dismantling any shared moral ground in that society. Liberal society does not seek to orient its citizens to the good; instead, it tries to create space for individuals to pursue their own visions of the good. But coherent moral claims in law, MacIntyre argues, require a comprehensive system of morality endorsed by the political community: “Insofar as it is this liberal view which has been embodied in social practice in contemporary advanced societies, the good has been privatized.”
Something similar is happening in the university. In the wake of our society’s privatization of the good, liberal education is declining. Modern liberal education is no longer oriented to the formation of moral and intellectual character but to the acquisition of particular skills. Liberal universities open countless new specialized departments while eliminating core requirements and rigorous curricula. Schools largely allow their students the “freedom” to confine themselves to their preferred areas of study. Not every school has adopted Brown University’s requirement-free “Open Curriculum,” but the trend is to allow students to choose more and more of their own classes. As a common vision of liberal education is dismantled, truth becomes privatized. This expansive freedom of choice—the ability to direct one’s own ends—maps perfectly onto the ideals of liberalism. The rejection of comprehensive curricula follows the abandonment of explicitly normative 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. Just like liberal society, the new compartmentalized, specialized education no longer seeks to orient students toward its traditional telos, the truth. Instead, it allows individuals space to pursue their own conception or aspect of what the truth is, focusing on fostering “academic excellence” and “global competitiveness.” Now each student, like each citizen, can choose his own telos.
Historically, “liberal” education meant quite the opposite of expansive autonomy for the student. Rather, each student was subjected to a comprehensive program of study, such as the famed classical curriculum at Columbia University (which has also been reduced in recent years). Through learning the great tradition and the wisdom of one’s predecessors—seeing the different ways in which human society has pursued truth, beauty, and goodness—students gain perspective on the present world and can view current times within a broader context. A liberal education is restrictive in content, but it is designed to free 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 modern student's expansive choices do not represent new blessings of liberty. Instead, the expansion of choice leads to more confusion.
As a current student at the University of Notre Dame, I am in the midst of receiving an allegedly “elite” liberal education—one of the best our society has to offer. But if that latter statement is true, as I believe it to be, this reflects poorly on the state of education in America more than it does well upon Notre Dame. Students at Notre Dame still must take two theology classes and one philosophy class, along with several other “core requirements.” But beyond these requirements, students are left with much leeway as to what specific courses they take and when they take them.
Thus, one will study Descartes in a room full of students who have never encountered the Aristotelian framework he is trying to deconstruct. Similarly, students can read how Kant grapples with the perceived moral problems presented by “new natural science” without ever taking a class on evolution or Newtonian physics. Regardless of whether Descartes’s deconstruction is successful or whether Kant’s philosophy is necessary to preserve objective morality, it is indisputable that students will not sufficiently engage with either thinker without a thoughtfully ordered, comprehensive core curriculum. Such a curriculum would teach these thinkers’ context and underlying premises before handing a student Meditations on First Philosophy or The Critique of Pure Reason.
The elimination of a structured curriculum allows students more choices. But as a consequence, no student can choose to study the liberal arts sequentially, with a cohort of students who will take classes in a logical sequence alongside them. By dropping core requirements, universities are choosing license over formation.
“Core curricula,” where they exist, are perhaps modernity’s final remnant of formative education. Every time a university determines that all students must take a particular class, the school is claiming that, regardless of what students think is good for them, it will in fact be good for them to take the mandated course. The educational system still maintains some objective views of goodness. If the privatization of the truth can be reversed, perhaps so too can the larger, societal rejection of objective, normative moral claims.
But without dramatic change, liberal politics’ rejection of “oughts” will continue to overtake education. And the privatization of truth will prevent anyone from substantially contradicting or expounding upon the opinions of another. Liberty and license will be united in public law and private formation: each citizen can pursue his own good and learn his own truth. The privatization of the truth is one more break between man and the eternal order, leaving him ever more vulnerable to the buffets of his temporal superiors.
W. Joseph DeReuil is an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame and the Editor-in-Chief of the Irish Rover. His writing has appeared previously in First Things, The American Conservative, and the National Catholic Register.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.