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The Four Competing Approaches to Higher Education

“Many critics point out that this one dimensional approach to education helps produce citizens who are selfish, disinterested in politics, and unprepared for dealing with moral complexities, which are not reducible to cost-benefit analysis.”


In the time since the publication of God and Man at Yale by National Review founder William F Buckley in 1951, conservatives have had a lot to say about the politics of the university. Indeed it has become something of a rite of passage for young pundits—from Dinesh D’Souza to Ben Shapiroto write a tell-all monograph chronicling their experiences in post-secondary education and argue that universities are hotbeds of left-wing agitation. This disposition carries into other conservative media where there is a constant string of commentary accusing universities of undermining Western civilization, corrupting the youth, and waging a culture war. Interestingly enough, very similar kinds of accusations have also been leveled by the far-left against the university system. Commentators like Noam Chomsky argued that post-secondary education was a tool for indoctrinating students into accepting the American world order and its values. Other commentators like the liberal egalitarian Martha Nussbaum and the radical theorist Wendy Brown argue that universities are increasingly being driven to denigrate whole fields of study and teach students that the pursuit of self-interest is the only viable way of living. Consequently, topics like philosophy or the humanities, which suggest different ways of life are viable and preferable to neoliberal governance, are denigrated as wastes of time, which will not get students a job in today’s cutthroat economy. Interestingly, some conservative commentators like Steven Crowder agree with this line of thinking.

Debates about how the university operates almost always turn on how certain disciplines are being taught. You see relatively few people commenting on the current state of mathematical education or arguing that physicists are being hoodwinked into accepting a given worldview. There are, of course, interesting exceptions, such as were presented in physicist Lee Smolin’s excellent book The Trouble with Physicswhich argues that high level scientific disciplines are often more driven by politics than one would expect. But these lines of thinking have generally not captured the public imagination. Their attention pales in comparison to the intense culture wars surrounding everything from what texts should appear on the curriculum of social science and humanities classes to endless accusations of indoctrination and questions about whether teaching certain subjects necessitates adopting a concrete political stance (or if such can be done in a neutral manner). This is likely because—in contrast to science and mathematics—the social sciences and humanities are regarded as less objective, more political, and, therefore, more inclined to challenging or reinforcing different sets of values. All the while, some disciplines like psychology and economics fall into grey areas. Given this intense focus—and, of course, my own background—in this article, I will discuss the different approaches to how universities should approach the social sciences and humanities (what I will call the human disciplines from here on in).  In the conclusion, I will suggest that a critical approach is the correct one; but contending that this necessitates that students have a strong grounding in the traditions and writings they are critiquing. 

How to Approach the Human Disciplines

Debates about how the human disciplines should be taught stretch back to ancient times, with philosophers and pedagogical theorists from Socrates to Confucius all weighing in. For figures like Socrates, the point of teaching should be to produce critically-minded citizens. Individuals who mindlessly parrot talking points drawn from their traditions or religious outlooks are not taking seriously the moral requirement that they think for themselves. This radical orientation is at the basis of Western philosophy and is one approach to studying human beings. By contrast more conservative approaches like those pioneered by Confucius stressed respect for traditions and social institutions and the necessity of learning from the past rather than presuming one possessed all the right answers—or was asking the right critical questions. It was important to look to history for models of excellence and try to base our actions and orientation on their exemplary behavior and disposition. Education was, therefore, considerably more about veneration than critique.

Up to the current day, debates about these same issues rage. Beyond the simplistic polemics, thoughtful authors from the political right like Allan Bloom and Peter Lawler to authors on the center and authors on the radical left such as Nussbaum and Brown have published and written a great deal on how to teach the human disciplines. Generally speaking, I think there are four general positions one can stake out. In this short article, I will try to summarize the different perspectives on the matter very briefly.

Education as Inculcation into a Virtuous Tradition 

The most conservative approach to teaching the human disciplines, pioneered by figures like Allan Bloom and carried on to this day by writers like Yoram Hazony and more pessimistically Patrick Deneen stresses the importance and connection between teaching about traditions and generating “virtuous” individuals. For these figures, the point of a university education in the human disciplines is inculcating in students a given way of life with a rich history, set of values, and conflicts. This can range from a religious way of life to a more nationalist or civilizational one. Depending on the commentator, this way of life may be considered a unique blessing to be cherished in its particularity—or a gift whose insights should be universalized. But in either case, it is the job of universities to emphasize which virtues are respected in that way of life and train students to emulate them. This doesn’t mean producing uncritical automatons of course. Traditional ways of life are all defined by internal conflicts; for instance does a virtuous Christian devote themselves to selfless altruism or is there a place for the pursuit of self-interest? These internal conflicts should, of course, be taught. But educators should hold back on criticizing the traditional way of life and its values as a whole, since the goal is to produce new generations of practitioners who respect and even revere the tradition even with all its messiness. This naturally makes these figures suspicious of those who relentlessly point out the flaws of the tradition, particularly those on the political left. 

Education and Economic Gain

The second primary way to interpret teaching in the human disciplines is to emphasize the relationship between studying and economic gain. Put more crudely, the most important thing is how studying a discipline will contribute to the student getting a job and making money in the long run. In this understanding, the important thing for educators to do is always offer concrete and highly practical examples while imparting marketable skill sets. As a consequence, disciplines such as philosophy, history, and literature which have little market value tend to be marginalized with the focus being on economics, law, and policy making. This understanding has wielded a great deal of influence recently, resulting in a barrage of articles with titles like “Top Ten Degrees in Demand 2019” and pundits like Ben Shapiro castigating non-STEM degrees as a scam given job prospects are apparently limited.

One of the major critiques leveled against this position—from both the virtue minded right and the critical left—is that is presents its emphasis on economic gain as basic good sense when actually it is an eminently contestable position. The claim that universities should focus on securing students high paying jobs is not transparently obvious, as evidenced by the competing understandings presented here. In fact, many critics point out that this one dimensional approach to education helps produce citizens who are selfish, disinterested in politics, and unprepared for dealing with moral complexities, which are not reducible to cost-benefit analysis. On the other hand, defenders of this position argue that asking a student to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition to hear lectures about Virginia Woolf is highly unrealistic and nonsensical. While some—mostly affluent figures—may fantasize about universities producing virtuous paragons of critical theorist, most people pursue an undergraduate degree to improve their lot in life.

Pursuing a Liberal Education 

The next way to understand post-secondary education is to create liberal minded citizens. This is the approach promoted by figures like Martha Nussbaum and John Dewey and has roots going back to Mill, Kant, and Rousseau. The argument is that students should be exposed to a wide variety of different fields and ways of life and asked to deliberate on the strengths and weaknesses of each. The result of this deliberation will be producing broad minded individuals, who are tolerant and critically minded without being inclined to radicalism. These individuals are the kinds of citizens required for a globalizing world: supportive of liberal principles without being dogmatists, cosmopolitan in their exposure to world literature, and culturally pluralist when evaluating issues like immigration and citizenship. In some respects, this understanding is similar to that propounded by conservative traditionalists: in that there is a strong association between learning the human disciplines and being a better citizen. But for the liberal, one’s own tradition should be put forward as just one option among many. It should not be cherished or valued any more than another’s—unless highly compelling reasons can be put forward for why the alternate tradition is inferior. 

This approach is perhaps the one most students in developed countries are exposed to if they are in a human discipline. This is because most university professors have a liberal orientation, though whether this is due to some bias or simply because liberal minded people pursue careers in academia is open for debate. And there are many benefits to this approach, including exposure to other cultures, learning about a broad range of topics without focusing myopically on one, and developing a reflective capacity about one’s own traditions and practices. These can also be useful skills when operating in a global economy, which is why some argue that a liberal education meshes with the demand that education result in a good job. But it has also been criticized for promoting a kind of easy relativism by the political right—or generating an elitist indifference to the material problems facing the poor by the political left. Conservatives argue that liberal education creates individuals who are indifferent to their traditions and dismissive of the virtues. The end result of their education are subjects who “live and let live” without ever learning to judge between better and worse ways of life. For left wing critics like Chomsky or Cornell West, a liberal education generates a level of indifference to the serious material problems and power imbalances still facing the world today. Liberal students are broadly tolerant of difference but make no efforts to actually rectify injustices they see as necessary to keep the world running in an orderly fashion. They’re entirely willing to support granting marriage rights to LGBTQ persons and even indulge in saying a few nice things about Karl Marx now and then. But they have no interest in actually redistributing wealth or democratizing the workplace. In other words, the liberal has plenty of nice things to say about the Civil Rights Movement, as long as the African American janitors keep sweeping the floors and don’t talk about reparations.

Education to Produce Radical Critics   

The last way to understand education in the human disciplines has roots that go back to Socrates—and that is to produce radical critics of society. For commentators like Jacques Ranciere, the purpose of education should be to create critically minded individuals who can emancipate themselves from the forces which oppress them. This means drawing the attention of students to the myriad and multifaceted ways that our world is still governed by oppressive power which serves to marginalize the vast majority of the human race. Depending on one’s orientation, the form this marginalization may look quite different. For some in a Marxist vein, we need to recognize the material ways through which capital continues to generate hegemonic ideologies which encourage the exploited to perpetuate their own oppression. For feminist theorists, education should encourage students to analyze the many ways that patriarchy still operates to subordinate women to men—for instance through naturalizing the vastly disproportionate amount of household labor done by women and suggesting they do it out of love and, therefore, don’t need to be compensated for it. It also means showcasing how in many states skin color can still determine one’s place in society, including in those states which insist they have gotten past such issues.


I think the critical approach to education has a great deal going for it. The function of a post-secondary education should not be to establish individuals who venerate their traditions simply because they happen to be born into them—or to produce more office drones who will earn Jeff Bezos a few more billion dollars. It should be to expose the persistent problems in a society and attempt to formulate comprehensive solutions to them. As Socrates would point out, a critical education should be a gadfly which stings students out of apathy or indifference and draws attention to the many ways society remains unjust. Anything less risks quietism on the urgent issues of the day.

However, I will grant one salient criticism of this position. If students are going to adopt a critical attitude towards their traditions and society, then they need to understand what those are. One of the dangers in a critical education can be an exclusive focus on all the problems and deconstructive ways to analyze them. This fails to impart to students why these traditions and societies—however unjust—appealed to many for a long time and not just the affluent and powerful. The basis of the word of radical is after all the Latin radix, or root and base. Without understanding the material and ideological basis of traditions and societies and grasping why their defenders support, one’s critique can never fully extend to the roots of the problem. This is why a viable critical education depends on teaching students about the traditions of their own societies in the best possible light before demonstrating their still serious limitations and why dramatic change is still needed.

Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at or added on Twitter via @MattPolProf.

One thought on “The Four Competing Approaches to Higher Education

  1. I think the ideal approach is one that draws the best parts from all four approaches, whilst leaving the not-so-good parts behind. That way, education helps prepare the students to have a good job and be a good citizen while still remaining critical of society and having access to a wide range of ideas and opinions to sort through and create their own worldview in the process.

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